Perfectionism, Asperger’s, and Anxiety: A Triumvirate of Emotional Disaster in School
When I first arrived in college after four rigorous and very brutal years of high school, I thought that I was prepared for any challenge that came my way. Having graduated with a 4.85 GPA and being looked at by over 300 different schools throughout the nation, everything seemed to be hopeful. However, college would bring its own set of hardships that were, and continue to be, unique. But when it comes to having Asperger’s, those obstacles can be magnified and taken more seriously than required, so I needed a set of tools to make my way through the first two years.
Normally, I write about the field of Conservation and what needs to be done to save our planet, but I felt that I should do something different and describe how I experienced life during most of my school years. No one has a typical case of a neurological disorder, so my problems don’t always reflect those of others. Despite that hard truth, I still want neurotypical people to get an idea of what’s going on so that they can make a difference in the lives of those who aren’t. Even though schools have their own counseling centers and resources, I feel that they don’t always do enough justice for people like me.
When I started the fifth grade, I became a very perfectionistic student, always wanting to get the best grades, the most awards, and the most recognition among my teachers. Still to this day, the only thing I know that could have started such behavior was my competition with another student who eventually became my school’s valedictorian. She didn’t know about my jealousy throughout those years, and I didn’t try to compete with her before the fifth grade. These facts make me think that there had to be some unclear internal drive, a reason that I still wonder about.
No matter the cause, the effects my behaviors began to have on me became concerning later on. In middle school, I experienced a lot of bullying and social exclusion, things that never happened to me in elementary school, so I naturally withdrew from my social life and focused on nothing else but academics. This led me to having all A’s throughout my time there, joining a lot of clubs, becoming a national honor student in the eighth grade, and earning a lot of awards that made me one of the most successful students to have ever attended that school. As proud as my parents were of me, they and I both knew that I had changed a lot, mostly for the worse emotionally.
At the same time as my success, I developed a lot of anxiety issues that were crippling in some instances, including my first panic attack in the sixth grade. I visited counselors a lot as well as a psychologist to deal with each pending issue at hand, but it took me a few years to recover from most of the emotional trauma I experienced thanks to the bullying. The cruel people who were in school forced me to grow up fast, even to the point of changing my personality. I went from being one of the nicest people to a very mean, defensive, and emotionally unpredictable person. Soon, I began tormenting those who had wronged me, making my exit from the school a necessary one.
When I finished the eighth grade, high school didn’t feel much better because my loneliness increased. Thanks to my Asperger’s, I wasn’t interested in what my peers were into, mainly concentrating my mind on politics, science, history, philosophy, literature, drama, and other subjects. My tastes in music were much older, and I had no care in the world for the trends, not even having a social media account. I’m still an old soul in a young man’s body, a part of my life that still prevents me from making friends in college. It felt that, with each passing year, my social isolation became worse while the stress from my perfectionism became more aggressive.
It got to the point where failure, even in the slightest manner, no longer became an option. I had to earn all A’s for all four years, receive most of the awards, get the most attention from colleges, and graduate as valedictorian. Little by little, the pounds began to add up, the clothes became tighter, and my health began a steady decline as months passed. I couldn’t catch a break during each year, not even during the holidays. I was either always doing school work or thinking about school. My mind had no other place to be, not on friendships, relationships, social activities, free weekends, or a day without any work whatsoever. I couldn’t even get a job because of all the schoolwork I had, and I didn’t even earn my driver’s license until after I graduated!
I began developing a nasty temper, often snapping with a simple glance at my grades online, especially when I found that one of them happened to drop to as something as simple as an 89. No matter how many times concerned family members tried to tell me that they were already proud, I wouldn’t budge from my mentality, even when I was suffering dearly from it. I relied on pills to help me sleep every night, often dreaming about being in school and doing work before the day had even begun. The worst feeling was having no one to support me hence my lack of friends, leaving me to shoulder my burdens in silence. Not only did I suffer from chronic anxiety over my academic life, but I had a few episodes of depression that lasted for a while, some of them being severe.
Still, I kept going despite everything that was making my mind crumble, earning plenty of awards, joining so many clubs, earning a ton of recognition throughout the school, being the treasurer for two years, and receiving tons of emails from colleges in the U.S. and other countries. It was like nothing could stop and make me reevaluate my ambitions. I was completely consumed by school that I had forgotten how to live, even over the summers when I finally had breaks. I felt like a machine with the sole mission of continuing on the never-ending road of perfection, a role I actually accepted with great pride. I felt like I was tougher and more resistant to failure, making me delusional enough to believe that it was a perfect lifestyle.
I soon came up with a motto that stuck with me for years: “Become the machine to survive. Lose all sense of emotion and pain. Let all your thoughts of inferiority drain. Be nothing else but the machine.” As scary as it sounds, it pushed me through challenges that would have easily stopped others dead in their tracks. The motto worked very well from my freshman to my junior year, but, by the time my senior year came, everything was coming to a head.
Meeting with my counselor shortly before it began, she told me that I was too far behind to be the valedictorian, a devastating blow that I took very hard because of everything I had done to be one step closer. The reason was that I didn’t take any AP courses during both my freshman and sophomore years because of my already hectic schedules, giving Libby Wheeler, the student I competed with back in elementary school, a very good chance. Instead of accepting an honorable defeat, I made it my new goal to at least graduate with distinguished honors, a goal that would require me to be in the top 5% of my class upon graduation. My standings then were in the upper 50%, moving me up from the middle 50% in my junior year, but not enough for me to reach my new goal without taking a load of AP courses.
With that, I signed up for AP Biology, AP Literature, and AP Psychology, two of them being easy enough to handle without too much stress. AP Biology, on the other hand, caused me problems throughout the entire year, forcing me to carry a heavy workload that would have easily made up for two classes at the most. Those assignments included more than three hours of homework every night, 8 hours or more of homework over the weekend, several projects over our breaks, long lab experiments, really advanced tests, and even coming up with our own long experiments. My parents were infuriated with my reckless decision to sign up for so many hard courses, but I only responded with rage and told them to leave me alone.
So many times during the year I found myself scrambling to bring my grades back up to A’s since I wasn’t able to make all A’s during both my sophomore and junior years for reasons beyond my own control. One reason was a mistake in final grade calculations that wasn’t fixed in time, and the other was for a test that was lost by one of my teachers. I couldn’t let my chance of being a distinguished honor graduate slip away, so I knew that I would gladly risk my own life and whatever sanity I had left for it. Eventually, my weight climbed over 270 pounds, requiring me to wear size 48 jeans and leading to more physical health problems. I was beginning to develop signs of IBS Syndrome and felt sick often, making me unable to do much physical activity. I was constantly eating fast food and kept becoming worse as time wore on.
Perhaps the worst of them all was having my depression return with a vengeance, so much to the point where I contemplated suicide. For the first time in my schooling career, I started to finally buckle under my own perfectionism, and the motto was no longer working. I wanted out, feeling that taking my own life would be better than having to see my aspirations dashed away. However, the only thing that kept me from attempting suicide was the fact that I would devastate my family by such an act. I couldn’t dare to think how they would react if I left them that way.
I decided to keep my feet planted firmly in the ground and to wrangle as much of my fried mind as possible so that I would see it to my graduation. I did whatever was necessary to keep moving forward, even if it meant screaming my heart out or furiously bashing my fists against a solid object. I was in Hell, my pain never ending no matter how close it came to May. In the end, I knew that the true test would be taking all my regular final exams for each class (7) in addition to my AP exams to determine if I would make all A’s (3). The very select few people I did talk to in school saw how sickly and tortured I had become, surprising me since I was able to keep a straight composure around everyone.
After several unrelenting months, I was on the brink of mentally shutting down from exhaustion, combined from the lack of sleep and daily exertion. Still, there was no relief despite being so close to the finish line. My AP Biology teacher gave us a 30+ page review packet to study for our regular final and another large packet to study for the AP exam. At that point, I didn’t have the mental capacity to do much more work, so I had to finally take a bad grade on an assignment so that I could get ready for my tests. My parents were ready for me to finally see the light, but I kept reassuring them that I was going to triumph in the end no matter what came my way.
And sure enough, I did in the most glorious manner. I exceeded on the AP Literature and Psychology exams, passed all my other tests, had a 4.85 GPA that was a 5.0 previously, and received emails and catalogs from over 300 different institutions. I had applied to LaGrange College and was accepted in just three days afterward, earning big scholarships and grants that nearly gave me a full ride there. As the icing on top of the giant cake, I graduated with distinguished honors, had plenty of awards, made the third highest GPA of the class, and left at the top 5%. Just about everything I envisioned and fought for became a reality.
In college, my freshman year was a very easy one, a much needed change from the horrible conditions I put myself through before. My sophomore year was not so great, resembling one of my high school years. Once again, my perfectionism, anxiety, and Asperger’s combined to form another toxic formula that kept me stressed all the time, requiring me to have many visits with the counselor since my depression came back with it. I even got into major trouble for the first time in my life after lashing out at another student, taking my feelings out on them. I was placed on academic probation for a year for violating two codes of the college, something that no one in my family ever expected to happen to someone like me.
What took me by surprise the most in college was how much harder classes were going to be, particularly when my freshman year was actually easier than a lot of people’s. But, aiming for a Bachelor of Science in Biology exposed me to courses like General and Organic Chemistry, Physics, Precalculus, and others that were very challenging, Physics actually being tougher than AP Biology! Another surprise was how I still struggled to make friends and date, a new activity I began to like. I felt like I was still stuck in my high school life, so I expressed everything, all years of emotional and academic hardships, to my counselor. They understood where I was coming from and brought me the same ultimatum that my parents did: I needed to finally retire my perfectionistic tendencies and realize that I am never going to be perfect no matter what.
Initially, I couldn’t even accept the idea of giving it all up. I had come too far just to stop being a super student who could do anything and everything he aimed to accomplish, so the process was going to require baby steps along the way. However, I did take a good long look at myself and deeply reflected on the events from the past, discovering how much damage I had done to myself for replacing a social life with nothing but academics, all because I feared being rejected. Clarity had found its way into my life, making me see for the first time what I couldn’t for years. From there, I knew that it was time to start changing my ways considering that I had been fighting to be the best student since the fifth grade.
Juggling with the goal of trying to finally have a social life, classes, joining organizations at college, forming a great resume, participating in undergraduate research, and looking for internships, I no longer could afford much more of it. The most memorable thing that happened at one of my counselor meetings was my verbal confession as to how tired I was. I told her that my tiredness felt like it carried the weight of all the work I did for those several years, and the saddest part was that I couldn’t keep with my usual pace anymore at school. She assured that every one of those years had caught up with me at long last, telling me that it was now the time in my life to begin slowing down at school before I harmed my health even more.
I had lost all the weight I gained at high school, shrinking down to 210 pounds and a size 38 in jeans, but my mental health still needed assistance. My attempts at keeping up with bad habits caused my GPA to slip from a 3.85 to a 3.6 and then to a 3.3 since I failed a class for the first time ever. That was the last piece of evidence I needed to convince myself that the process had to begin right then and there. Taking the summer to work at an internship and enjoy myself, I reaffirmed my goals for my junior year so that they would be more reasonable to obtain.
I even changed my field of Biology as well as the type of degree I wanted to pursue, going from a Bachelor of Science to a Bachelor of Arts. I went from pursuing Microbiology to Conservation, a field that I felt would give me a lot more to work with when it came to doing the most good for the world. That means that I will no longer have to take Chemistry or Physics classes, the ones that gave me so much trouble before. The tools my counselor gave me were being implemented, giving me a way to still strive for great things but not at the expense of my health and sanity. For sure, times still become difficult, but I’m at ease knowing that things will work out for the better since there is not nearly as much pressure as before.
I’m not going to lie that I still have some perfectionism in me, but I’ve made long strides since high school. I’m now perfectly comfortable with B’s, failing at times, not being the best of the class, and not receiving many awards like I used to. I’m still a workaholic, one that is adjusting the amount of work I do so that things won’t be too much. A lot of that work is being done outside the classroom to decrease the pressure even more, making my life more well-rounded and productive. I’m even getting to serve my community more, helping people and doing work that is greater than myself.
The most satisfying outcome is that I’m no longer a machine on the verge of breaking down. I’m a human being whose feelings matter much more than excessive ambitions, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m also completely content with my Asperger’s, accepting it as a gift that makes me unique, allowing for different contributions to be made in our world. As I prepare for the Spring semester of my junior year, I’m confident that I’ll succeed without driving myself insane.
In the end, I hope everyone will understand how complex a disorder like Asperger’s is and how others can be similarly challenging to grasp. That’s why we need counselors, parents, friends, and peers to be fully engaged and deeply listen to someone who happens to have one of them. It will make a magnificent difference in their lives, and it all begins when they are finally recognized for their struggles. I honestly wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the support of my parents, my counselors, my teachers, and other specialists throughout school. Once atypical people are listened to, they’ll have a better chance of releasing a lot of the pain that comes from their conditions, providing the tools needed for self-improvement and future success.
I sincerely feel that, if I had more people my age who understood me in school and wanted to be friends, I wouldn’t have been as obsessed with academics. I would have had a balance between school and friendships, but, since I didn’t, I mentally replaced the benefits of a social life with schoolwork to fill the void in my heart. So, if you are a parent reading this, please don’t ever pressure your kids to do more than their best because all that anyone can do is exactly that, their best. If you are a teacher, don’t pressure students to aim for perfection because there is no such thing. Finally, if you are another student, reach out to those who you think may be struggling, neurotypical or atypical, because you can be the difference they need in their lives.